“I love talking to people,” affirms Decies Avenue resident Leonard Rochford, although after three minutes of conversation this was already obvious. “I built a career on it,” the former Ard Ri worker tells me speaking about his time in the catering and hospitality industry from the age of 12, something which he relished as it was perfectly suited to his personality.
“Communication, I love it.”
The 70-year-old is a native Dub who grew up in Stillorgan, although a happy childhood was blighted at the age of 12 by the passing of his father in June of 1961, a month after the family’s home had burnt down.
“We did a lot of racing on bikes. My mother wanted me to wear the helmet. I was nearly killed on the Stillorgan Road – I had my sister on the bar at the front bringing her in to Loreto on Stephen’s Green. I was racing the bus alongside of it and something pulled out in front of it. I slapped off of it, my head was like a balloon! I just got up and walked away.”
He started working at 12 although he had struggled to pick anything up until the chief usher of a local cinema helped him line a job up in the cloak room, with the tips he earned leaving him feel minted. From there he moved on to Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street, a place of prestige where his love of the industry began to blossom.
“I started as a pageboy before moving on to the restaurant and then after nine o’clock I couldn’t work so I would go upstairs doing drinks and tea for the nuns and priests. I’d come home with 20 half crowns in my pocket so that was great! I started going to catering college around the corner from the Gresham and I was looking at people from the Shelbourne and the Russell which was the place – Mick Jagger wouldn’t even be let in there. I said to myself I was going to work there.”
Each morning he would look out for jobs in the Independent and while he would eventually find a spot at the Russell, he first had to settle for the equally aristocratic Shelbourne off Stephen’s Green where he got a job in the Grill Room.
“It would be packed. A steak burger and a fried egg on top – it’s still one of the best dishes on any menu. Ronnie Drew and all the lads would be there. There would be a queue around the corner from Parliament Street to the Shelbourne on Friday and Saturday. I would ask every week if there was a job in room service because you made a lot there. I was too young for that but he got tired in the end and let me!”
He remembers serving the film director John Ford on the third floor, the actress Maggie Smith and Irish-Australian millionaire John Galvin, who he would give freshly squeezed orange juice to each morning on the second floor. He also first met Kevin Quinn, manager of the Ard Ri, a link which worked to his advantage and led to him moving to the South East in 1970 after fulfilling his goal of working in the Russell in addition to learning French during a stint in Lille.
“I had never in my life been to Waterford. My first impression was of a beautiful, soft, easy-going city. The people were very relaxed. It had so much going for it but nobody was tapping into that. It was a big industrial city with a famous soccer club – there was a lot going for it. It’s older than Dublin. It just needed to be marketed. It had it’s own port and airport – it just needed to be built upon. It was a stronger Trade Union city than Dublin as well. The comraderie was great.”
He started on November 23, 1970 as Deputy Restaurant and Banqueting Manager and had great pride in working what he remembers many in the industry called “the first hotel of the future”.
“‘It’s state of the art, it has electric doors,’ I sent in a longhand cv so it would stand out and Kevin Quinn saw I had done room service in the Shelbourne and that so he called to see me. I hired all the girls in Ferrybank – Babs Gleeson, Bridie Hughes, Mrs McLoughlin, Kathleen O’Neill, Pattie Reid – and all their families as well!”
The view over the city he feels made visitors, many of whom he would recognise from their stays in Dublin, feel powerful and he remembers thoroughly enjoying hosting events like banquets for the staff of Clover Meats. One moment which sticks out however, is the stay of American screenwriter Stanley Kubrick, who used the hotel as a base while filming Barry Lyndon.
“There were two people who were vetting where all the crew would stay. Brendan Gallagher was the manager at the time in 1974 I think. They were taking photographs and everything. I put them at Table number 7 in the 90-seater restaurant which was the table. Everyone loved that table because you were looking right over the town. We had 100 double and treble rooms, a conference centre, we could handle anything. Ryan O’Neal starred in it (Barry Lyndon) and Bernie Williams was the Executive Producer – he was the man with the moola.
“At the time we had the rave nights in the Ard Ri! The first DJ was Mike Kent who was a wild man, and a very professional architect as well. They were really crazy nights and the crew of the film came along to the discos as well.”
In May, 1987 he left the hotel as he felt he needed a fresh challenge, moving on to Fat Sam’s in the city before PJ Reddy of the Reginald approached him to sort out the food in Paddy Browne’s Pub.
“We had it packed for food. They didn’t open Saturday or Sunday for food before – you’re losing money there. He bought me a good carvery unit and to make a long story short we were busy all week. On Thursday and Friday I had to come up here (Lisduggan Shopping Centre) to buy chickens – we would have no food left! We improved the product and got the word out to the people – I remember going around the industrial estate at the beginning.”
Looking back, the memories that spring to mind when thinking about his career are happy ones and with hindsight, he struggles to think of anything he would change. One thing he wouldn’t adjust at all is his style of leadership which emphasised the strength of unity and friendship.
“I always believed in the power of teamwork. If you didn’t come in and say good morning go back out, go around the block and come in and say it again.”
In conversation with Ronan Morrissey